(Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee)
Supporters worldwide breathed a moderate sigh of relief when word came early Wednesday that blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng had been transported to a hospital for treatment under the protection of U.S. diplomats. However, it was also revealed that Chen reportedly left the U.S. Embassy under duress from the Chinese government.
It initially seemed that an arrangement had been reached with Chinese authorities that would guarantee the safety of the human rights activist, who made international headlines last week after he escaped house arrest. After his escape, Chen had secured shelter in the U.S. Embassy in the Chinese capital, causing tension in U.S.-China diplomatic relations.
Despite vows of goodwill from Chinese authorities regarding the activist's case, skeptics had their suspicions confirmed later Wednesday, when Chen reportedly revealed that Chinese authorities had threatened to harm his family if he did not leave the American Embassy.
Advocates at ChinaAid, a Christian human rights organization based in the United States, had doubts whether Chen's decision to leave the U.S. Embassy was really voluntary, as Chinese authorities had suggested. Although the official report coming from the Chinese government describes Chen as "walking out of [the] U.S. Embassy's diplomatic protection on May 2 with his own volition," the organization received reports that the dissident's decision was made "reluctantly" because "serious threat to his immediate family members were made by [the] Chinese government" if he refused.
Those reports were confirmed by Chen himself later on Wednesday, when he told the press that threats were made to his family, and that he now fears for his safety and wants to leave the country.
A U.S. official has denied knowledge of the threat, but says Chen was told his family would be sent back home if he stayed in the embassy, The Associated Press reported.
Chen's escape has undoubtedly strained some nerves, as it was a clear embarrassment to Chinese authorities, only a few days before U.S. secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were scheduled to arrive in Beijing for a session of important policy talks between the two powers.
The world has been watching the diplomatic crisis carefully, as neither government had agreed to officially comment on the status of the former prisoner until very recently.
Chen, 40, was a known dissident targeted by the Chinese authorities for highlighting the ethical ambiguity of the government's one-child policy -- especially the aspect of alleged forced abortions and forced sterilizations. Chen illuminated the issue for the Western press, for which he reportedly faced persecution from Chinese authorities, including imprisonment and torture. The dissident detailed the history of his alleged abuse in a video published immediately after his escape from house arrest.
Details of Chen's escape have only emerged recently, through the account of the dissident's helper, He Peirong, who reportedly duped authorities guarding Chen's village and home where he had been detained for about 19 months. Peirong reportedly drove Chen part way through his escape, before being detained.
The blind dissident had been under tight security, with 66 guards working in three shifts, 22 guards every eight hours, said Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, who spoke with Peirong. Chen reportedly had been "completely shut off from the outside world" and "sick and injured from all the beatings."
Chen had reportedly spent months on his back, pretending to be near death, so that his guards would lower their vigilance. On April 22, he scaled the wall and ran away, "taking several wrong turns and falling into a river because of his blindness," Littlejohn wrote in a statement published online. Peirong drove 20 hours to meet Chen and fooled the village guards into letting her in by disguising herself as a courier. She then drove Chen another eight hours -- still wet from his fall in the river -- to safety in Beijing, the statement reads. Chinese authorities reportedly did not realize Chen was gone for four days.
Many human rights supporters have called upon the Obama administration to protect Chen.
Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who is known for advocating for religious freedom and human rights around the world, issued a statement Monday through ChinaAid, calling for the Obama administration's caution on the issue.
This administration is known for sacrificing human rights issues for greater diplomacy, the politician claimed, as Clinton famously said soon after her appointment as State Secretary that U.S .concerns with human rights issues in China "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."
"America's reputation as a beacon of freedom -- the 'last best hope of man on Earth' hangs in the balance," Wolf wrote. "The Obama administration must rise to the occasion and allow the U.S. Embassy in China to fulfill its obligation as an island of freedom in a sea of repression."
"These diplomats must be ever-mindful of how the Chinese government has responded thus far and refuse to accept vague assurances of Chen's future safety," he added. "They need look no further than He 'Pearl' Peirong, one of those who provided key logistical support for Chen in his flight for freedom. She is presently under house arrest, location unknown."
Multiple groups, including conservative Christian advocacy group Christian Defense Coalition, have called for the Obama administration to not let diplomatic relations interfere with protecting Chen's human rights.
"While we understand Chen's wish all along was to live as a free man in China, to seek political asylum was not the ideal option as he did not want to be an observer of the fight for reform and the rule of law," said Bob Fu, President of ChinaAid and a pastor. "He has the admiration of the world right now and that will perhaps help keep him safe in the short-term, but I am fearful what could happen if the world loses interest. The government sees him as a trouble-maker and a threat to their legitimacy... The free world has a moral imperative and obligation to ensure Chen's protection, his fight for freedom is one shared by us all."
ChinaAid has called upon both the Chinese and U.S. governments to release details of their negotiation deal regarding Chen as well as the status of the activist's family so that the international community can hold relevant parties accountable.
China has demanded an apology from U.S. authorities for "interfering" with its internal affairs.